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The short answer is:

  • If you are not married to a U.S. citizen, you have to reside in the U.S. for five years, before you may apply for citizenship.
  • If you are married to a U.S. citizen, you have to reside in the U.S. for three years, and be married to and living with your spouse during all of those three years, before you may apply for citizenship.

However, the law contains definitions of residence, temporary interruptions of residence, physical presence requirements, and exceptions, that make the question of how long you have to be in the U.S. before you apply for citizenship, a bit more complicated. This post will explain the governing law more fully.

Residence

Your residence is your “actual dwelling place.” For the purposes of naturalization law, your intent does not come into consideration when determining your residence. If you or your spouse are a member of the U.S. Armed Forces, the time you reside abroad can be considered residence in the United States.

Temporary interruptions of residence

If, during the time you reside in the U.S., you are absent from the U.S. for less than six months, you are not considered to have abandoned your residence in the U.S. 

If, during the time you reside in the  U.S., you are absent from the U.S. for more than six months but less than a year, you are considered to have abandoned your residence, unless you can prove to USCIS that you did not abandon your residence. To prove that you did not abandon your residence, you may show that:

  • You did not terminate your employment in the U.S.
  • Your immediate family remained in the U.S.
  • You still had full access to your home in the U.S.
  • You did not get a job while outside of the U.S.
  • You may also submit any other evidence that supports your claim that you did not abandon your U.S. residence.

If, during the time you reside in the U.S., you are absent from the U.S. for more than one year, you are considered to have abandoned your residence, unless you were employed by the U.S. government, and American institution of research, an American corporation, or a public international organization of which the U.S. is a member. If you worked for one of these entities, you are not considered to have abandoned your residence during the time you were outside the U.S. Your spouse, and unmarried children in your household, are also not considered to have abandoned their residence.

If you have been absent for the U.S. for more than a year, and you did not work for one of the organizations listed above, you may file an application for citizenship four years and one day after you resume your U.S. residence (or two years and one day, if you are married to a U.S. citizen.)

Physical presence requirements

During the time that you are a resident of the U.S., you must be physically present in the U.S. for at least half of the time. Thus, if you are not married to a U.S. citizen, you must be physically present in the U.S. for at least two-and-a-half years; if you are married to a. U.S. citizen, you must be physically present in the U.S. for at least one-and-a-half years.

If you were employed by the U.S. government, or if you are the spouse of a member of the armed forces, you are considered to have been physically present during the time you were outside the U.S. in the government’s employ, or during the time your spouse was abroad on military duty.

Exceptions

  • Members of the armed forces may apply for citizenship after serving for more than one year. They must apply while still in the service, or within six months after service terminates.
  • People who have “made an extraordinary contribution to national security” may apply for citizenship after they have resided in the U.S. for one year.
  • Battered spouses and children of U.S. citizens, who obtained lawful permanent resident status through their U.S. citizen spouse or parent, may apply for citizenship after they have resided in the U.S. for three years.
  • Employees of 

— the U.S. government,

— an American institution of research, 

— an American corporation, 

— a public international organization of which the U.S. is a member, or

— a non-profit organization which promotes U.S. interests abroad, 

may apply for citizenship after having worked for such an entity for more than five years, as long as they declare an intention to reside in the U.S. immediately after the employment terminates. Spouses of employees of these institutions, may apply for citizenship at any time, without regard to how long their spouse has been employed by the institution, if the employee-spouse is a U.S. citizen.

  • Religious workers. If a religious worker 

— Is a lawful permanent resident

— Is employed by a religious organization have a bona fide organization in the

U.S.

— Has been physically present in the U.S. for more than one year, and

— Has been or may be temporarily absent from the U.S. for the purpose of

performing religious duties

The religious worker may be considered a resident of the U.S. during the time he was outside of the U.S. performing religious duties.

Some of the laws governing how long it takes to become a citizen, can be found ,,here, ,,here, ,,here, ,,here, and ,,here. If you still have questions about whether you are eligible for citizenship, ,,consult an attorney.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force photo Greg Allen